I grew up in a church where disapproval was an often-used method of keeping us teens in line. If we got too rowdy during the church service, people would shoot disapproving looks our way till we quieted down. If we’d be too lacklustre in worshipping, we’d get ‘the look’ as well.
The youth leaders had the disapproval method down to a pat too. When they encountered us doing something we weren’t supposed to do (like smoking, using bad language or pda’s ), the disapproval would be clear from their faces, their words and their whole demeanor.
It worked. But it also had an unintentional result: we experienced not just disapproval over what we did, but also over who we were. At least, I did.
I wasn’t a bad kid as a teen. In all honesty, I was doing pretty well in terms of faith. I took it seriously, tried to read the Bible and pray, brought friends with me to youth group and everything.
Still, I always felt I wasn’t good enough. There always was this disapproval when I did mess up. I distinctly remember hearing the words ‘I’m disappointed in you, I never expected that from you’ a couple of times and it hurt me deeply.
It also reinforced a gospel of performance in me, something I struggled with even years later. The thought that even my best wasn’t good enough to please leaders whose opinion mattered to me, influenced my image of God, as I figured he’d feel the same way.
Disapproval isn’t necessarily wrong, as long as it’s aimed at the behavior and not the person. But too often, disapproval is our knee-jerk reaction as youth leaders when we’re confronted with ‘bad behavior’ from our students. Too often we show our disapproval, our disappointment even, before we show grace and try to understand the ‘why’.
No matter how shocked or disappointed we are at the behavior of our students (especially when it concerns those students we don’t expect it from!), our first reaction should be love and not judgment. Our first reaction should be to understand, not to be heard in our anger or frustration. Our first reaction should be to show kindness and mercy, not a desire to point out something students will already know in all likelihood anyway.
Disapproval can have lasting effects in the lives of our students. They’ll feel weighed, measured and found wanting.
On the other side, acceptance and unconditional love will have lasting effects as well. When we live out God’s mercy and love, we’re showing them a powerful image of God, one that may impact the rest of their lives.
Disapproval or love, judgment or understanding, which one will you choose?
Rachel Blom is Dutch of origin, American at heart and ultimately heaven bound, but currently residing in the south of Germany. She’s an author and speaker and a veteran youth ministry enthusiast. Find her at Youth Leaders Academy where she blogs on everything youth ministry or on Twitter.